Meet the Real Belle de Jour
Araminta Wordsworth, National Post; With Files From News Services Published: Wednesday, November 18, 2009
For years she titillated Britons with her witty and erotic despatches from the front lines of the sex trade — but the upmarket call girl, known only by the classy pseudonym of Belle de Jour, was also a canny businesswoman, parlaying her blog into a book deal and a hit TV series starring U.K. actress Billie Piper.
All the while, her true identity remained unknown. Not even her literary agent or her publishers knew.
Now the elusive and seductive Belle has been unmasked as Dr. Brooke Magnanti, 34, a research scientist in a hospital in Bristol, western England, where she specializes in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology.
The American-born woman went public over the weekend out of fear a jealous former boyfriend was about to leak the secret. Her bombshell has provoked soul-searching and outrage among many who thought they knew her.
They include the British Army officer who was her boyfriend for seven years. Known as “The Boy” in diary entries about their sex life, he is now having to tell his family and friends the woman he hoped to marry was an escort girl who charged £300 an hour.
“I can’t believe she has done this,” the man, identified only as Owen, told The Daily Telegraph.
“Brooke has outed me to my family and friends without giving me any warning.
“She never asked if she could write about our life together and I feel humiliated.”
Dr. Magnanti, who went to Britain to study for a doctorate at Sheffield University, has said she turned to prostitution after moving to London to finish her studies and finding she did not have enough money to pay the rent.
The woman, who was brought up a Roman Catholic and convent-educated, signed up with an agency and began being paid to have sex.
Explaining her decision to go public, she said she found “keeping up a double life … just too difficult to do long-term.”
“I suppose I always thought that the part of my life I wrote about would fade away, that I could stick it in a box and move on. Totally separate it from the ‘real me,’ ” she wrote.
She said it had taken her years to realize that while her life had moved on, Belle would “always be a part of me.”
“Belle and the person who wrote her had been apart too long. I had to bring them back together.
“So a perfect storm of feelings
and circumstances drew me out of hiding. And do you know what? It feels so much better on this side. Not to have to tell lies, hide things from the people I care about.
“It became important to acknowledge that aspect of my life and my personality to the world at large.
“I am a woman. I lived in London. I was a call girl.
“The people, the places, the actions and feelings are as true now as they were then, and I stand behind every word with pride.”
Nonetheless, her estranged father Paul Magnanti, 61, is appalled.
“This is a complete shock to me. I had no idea, I found out through the press today,” Mr. Magnanti said from Holiday, Fla., where he runs a gardening business.
“It’s broken my heart. No parent wants to hear that. I was very proud when she got her PhD. She is a very intelligent girl and I wish she had become well-known under different circumstances.
Similarly, the all-women team at Dr. Magnanti’s employer, the British Initiative for Child Health,
have rallied round since being told the news about a month ago.
“She’s a researcher. She’s just a member of staff here and what happened in the past doesn’t really bear relevance to what she’s doing now,” said a spokesman.
Rowan Pelling, editor of the erotic magazine Erotic Review, helped Dr. Magnanti get published and said people should not be surprised at a research scientist being a call girl.
“For the past couple of days, interviewers have been asking me breathily what I thought of Belle when I met her, as if my eyes must have been out on stalks at the idea of a PhD student turning tricks,” Ms. Pelling wrote in The Daily Telegraph.
“But the truth is I wasn’t startled at all. Throughout my eight years running the Erotic Review, I met people leading all kinds of extraordinary double lives, most of them outwardly respectable pillars of their middle-class communities.”
Some in the media have been less supportive of Dr. Magnanti’s description of call-girl life.
“Hers was an extraordinary experience of prostitution; she was lucky, because prostitution ordinarily is, simply put, a condition that kills women,” wrote Tanya Gold in Britain’s Guardian.
“I am glad you were not battered, Belle, but prostitution is a poisoned solution; a solution to nothing.”
Bel Mooney, in the Daily Mail, said the worst aspect of the “whole sorry story” is that such an intelligent woman, with all the privileges of a good background and education, should make “such a low-down choice.”
The use of the moniker Belle de Jour might have given a clue that Dr. Magnanti was above the usual run of sex-trade workers.
It refers to the classic Luis Bunuel movie in which Catherine Deneuve (clothed enviably by Yves St. Laurent) plays a bored housewife who turns to sadomasochistic sessions in a brothel to liven up her afternoons.
But in fact Belle’s antecedents are closer to the courtesans of Georgian and Regency England, women such as Dorothea Jordan or Harriette Wilson, whose racy memoirs were a best-seller — among her lovers were the Prince of Wales, later George IV, and four prime ministers, including the Duke of Wellington.